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Kissing at work? Leave me out, please…

“When I was your age I disliked being kissed by people at work so intensely that I developed a special anti-kissing strategy. Whenever someone approached me with intent, I would look panic-stricken and take a step backwards to discourage a lunge. This was generally effective in conveying that I didn’t wish to be kissed, but it was also successful in making me seem uptight, awkward or unfriendly – or all three.”

LUCY KELLAWAY Financial Times (31 August 2011)

I was delighted to see this question put to the FT’s Lucy Kellaway last week by a 29-year-old female researcher: what does one do about this kissing epidemic in the workplace?

I was reassured to see that Ms Kellaway, like me, hates the idea of kissing or being kissed by strangers. In the West, it is de rigueur to offer up one’s cheek to members of the opposite sex as a social greeting. In much of South America, men kiss each other on both cheeks as a hearty greeting. In medieval times, Christian knights kissed each other before battle to forgive any wrongs that might occur.

Unfortunately, kissing has now entered the workplace. Not just kissing itself, but even the pretence of doing it. I found this definition in Wikipedia of the “air kiss”: “The air kiss is a ritual or social gesture whose meaning is basically the same as that of many forms of kissing. The air kiss is a pretence of kissing: the lips are pursed as if kissing, but without actually touching the other person’s body. Sometimes, the air kiss includes touching cheek-to-cheek. Also, the gesture may be accompanied by the mwah sound. The onomatopoeic word mwah has already entered the Webster’s dictionary.”

Mwah? What has this, I ask, got to do with us? So people in other cultures want to kiss ritually and pointlessly – so what? What has this practice got to do with African and Asian cultures? Kissing strangers just because it is the done thing thousands of miles away? And do you even know what to do? One kiss? Which cheek? Two kisses – or three? Do you make contact or just pretend to? Who is kissed, and who is left out?

It’s a free world, and you can do what you like in social situations – but I do wonder about this practice in work-related ones. Workplaces require professional relationships, and a degree of social distance is necessary. If men and women are going to kiss before every meeting begins, then we are bringing an unnecessary intimacy into our work relationships. And if these kisses are meaningless – then why do them in the first place?

The reason we do them is the more worrying thing. It is just another example of our abject willingness to accept every Western norm and practice without question or analysis. Judges’ wigs, tight neckties, stiletto heels – all things we just ape because we think they come from a more ‘advanced’ culture.

And in our businesses, we cease to think for ourselves. We import foreign theories into our brains; mimic ‘best’ practices from places completely unlike ours; adopt every new management fad that hits us simply because ‘they’ are doing it. And ‘they’ know best.

What nonsense. Note that the kissing epidemic is gathering pace in Kenyan companies, and note who is driving it: those Kenyans who want to appear well-travelled, cosmopolitan, suave and sophisticated. Those same Kenyans will rise high in our organizations and start taking important decisions. And watch and see, those decisions will be just as empty, just as Mwah Mwah as the kisses…

So, when you next approach me and I offer a firm handshake instead of a willing cheek, don’t take it personally. Like Lucy Kellaway, I’m not uptight, unfriendly or awkward. I’m just being the real me.

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